As a result of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy adopted by the current government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina since 2009, Bangladesh has seen commendable success in countering terrorism and violent extremism in the last one decade. Such success has also been internationally recognized and applauded by other countries, international organizations and leading security think tanks. Bangladesh’s strong response to homegrown and foreign group-inspired terrorists following the 1 July 2016 terrorist attack at a bakery in Dhaka has been particularly noteworthy. Several major anti-terror operations, thwarting of a number of high profile intended attacks and continuing prosecutions and convictions against hundreds of terrorists and violent extremists have devastated the ability of groups such as Jamaatul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB) to mount any credible attack or cause chaos in the soil of Bangladesh.
However, this is only one aspect of Bangladesh’s struggle against terrorism and violent extremism. The country is also working to prevent, as well as counter, terrorism and violent extremism through undertaking a plethora of social, educational and religious measures. In 2010, the government formulated a strong anti-extremism National Education Policy, which highlights the need for reforming the Madrassa Islamic religious school curriculum.
The government also introduced anti extremism chapters in academic text books. Additionally, the Ministry of Education has been organizing awareness programs against terrorism in different schools and colleges. The government is developing a standard national curriculum that includes language, math, and science; and minimum standards of secular subjects to be taught in all primary schools, up to the eighth grade, in order to make sure that students of all mediums receive the appropriate type of education.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and the National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention is working with Imams (Islamic religious leaders) and religious scholars to build public awareness against terrorism. Under the auspices of the Government-run Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, around 70,000 Imams have been trained in a variety of topics, including building awareness against terrorism and violent extremism. Anti-terrorism sermons are being delivered in mosques across the country since 1 July, 2016.
The relevant law enforcement agencies are engaging religious leaders in the fight against violent extremism by helping to counter militant propaganda with appropriate scripture-based messages and engaging Imams to speak to surrendered terrorists to explain that the Holy Quran does not support terrorist violence. The police also are continuing community policing efforts and working with local universities to identify missing students and to curb radicalization of university students. Local research institutions, including private think tanks and both public and private universities, have begun to engage in research and awareness activities on preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism.
In 2014, Bangladesh became a board member and pilot country for the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience, a public-private global fund to support local, grassroots efforts to counter violent extremism. So far, programmes under the GCERF have been rolled out in three districts: Satkhira, Cox’s Bazar and Chapainawabganj. In 2016-17, Bangladesh organizations continued cooperative activities through the Community Support Mechanism (CSM) under the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). The CSM signed grants with three local organizations as principal recipients of GCERF funds.
The government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has undertaken two major initiatives to use the power of faith and religion themselves to counter those who seek to besmirch their names by engaging in violence. They are: first, a mega mosques and Islamic cultural centers project; and Second, by mainstreaming one of the largest faith-based groups, the students and graduates from the Qawmi Madrassah education system. We will now look at these two initiatives in detail.
The Nationwide Mosques and Islamic Cultural Centers Project
The Awami League Government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has launched a billion dollar nationwide mosques and Islamic Cultural Centre project, which will have both domestic and international funding, most presumably from Saudi Arabia. Under this project, being implemented by the Islamic Foundation under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Bangladesh Government will build 560 model mosques across the country to preach accurate and correct Islam and to counter the religious misconceptions which cause terrorism and violent extremism.
The model mosques will have special features including research facilities, seminar rooms, and libraries to provide religious education and “spiritual revival”. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina laid the foundation stone of the project at her Ganabhaban residence on April 5. During that event, the Prime Minister said:
“Islam is the religion of peace…Our aim is to spread the true light of Islam. We are going to build model mosques where Muslims can exercise the real culture of Islam and help stop any violence in the name of Islam…”
Some have expressed concerns about Saudi Arabian funding as previously during the regimes of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat E Islami and Jatiya Party, funding from Saudi Arabia had been used for spreading the ultra-orthodox Wahabi ideology among the faith schools and mosques in Bangladesh. However, this is a different Saudi Arabia now. With the recent progressive steps taken by King Salman and his son the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, tectonic social, cultural and political changes are taking place in the kingdom with women getting the opportunity to drive for the first time, a church is being built for Christians for the first time, theatres and movies are opening up, morality police has been stripped of their power of enforcement and arrest etc. On top of that, Bangladesh has already cultivated a strong relation with Saudi Arabia in terms of counter terrorism cooperation. Thus, most are hopeful that with adequate government oversight of this project, this could become one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenals of the Bangladesh Government to help prevent terrorism and violent extremism in the name of religion.
Mainstreaming Qawmi Students and Graduates
The Government of Bangladesh last year recognized the Dawah E Hadith qualification of Qawmi Madrasahs as being equivalent to Masters (MA) in Islamic Studies or Arabic. Qawmi Madrasahs are one of two main types of Islamic faith schools in Bangladesh, the other being the Government-regulated Aliyah Madrasahs. As a result of the recognition, graduates of Qawmi education can now apply for jobs meant for master’s degree holders for the first time. Already, this recognition has yielded positive results for the Qawmi graduates, as on 5 March 2018, a total of 1,010 Qawmi madrasa graduates joined the government service for the first time. The graduates joined as teachers of the Qawmi Faculty at Darul Arkam Ibtedaye Madrasha under a project titled ‘Mosque Based Children and Mass Education Programme being implemented by Islamic Foundation (IF).
This was a big step from the current government in their aim of mainstreaming Qawmi education. Efforts are currently underway to formulate the Bangladesh Qawmi Madrasa Education Authority Act. To that end, an Analysis Committee has been formed to properly draft this legislation. As per the recommendations, an examination board under the board will be formed, consisting of representatives from the six existing Qawmi Madrasah boards.
While there have been no explicit directions as such respecting the autonomy and independence of these institutions, the Government has maintained communications with the Qawmi Madrassa policymakers to include as much practical knowledge and subject areas as possible under their curriculum. Qawmi Madrasahs are now working to ensure that apart from the core religious teachings of their institutions, they have formulated 60 textbooks on general education for students of Classes 1 to 8. These books include subjects such as Bangla, English, Mathematics, Geography, Social Studies, General Knowledge and Grammar etc. Thus, steps such as recognition has resulted in the otherwise very guarded Qawmi education system to open up to more general subjects of teaching as opposed to only religious teachings.
The steps taken by the Sheikh Hasina Government in mainstreaming Qawmi education are crucial in terms of preventing any violent extremism among Qawmi graduates. This is principally because according to a 2015 research by the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, there are around 14,000 Qawmi Madrasahs in Bangladesh with a total of around 1.4 million students. Every year, a large percentage of youths graduate from these institutions. Traditionally, their future roles have only been restricted to religious employment and scholarships.
Recognizing their highest qualification would help bring them into the mainstream education and society and ensure employment opportunities. This would prevent any sense of disenfranchisement for a large among of youths. Since 1.4 million children and youths are being taught at these institutions, with the lack of employment and other opportunities following completion of their studies, they could be fall prey to those violent extremists and terrorists who seek to radicalize them. Recognizing their qualifications would also ensure that their educational system goes through further modernization and brought under more rules and discipline. The mainstreaming efforts also ensure that Bangladesh’s prosperity is inclusive and its future development is sustainable.